The latest Yankees folk hero was living at a La Quinta Inn next to a Triple-A stadium less than a month ago. That was Matt Carpenter’s in-season residence until Mitch Garver returned from the injured list.
Garver, a catcher by trade, had been out with a flexor strain in his throwing elbow. So when he returned he could hit, but not throw. The Rangers still wanted his bat and activated Garver on May 19 to be their regular DH. He hit righty, but Texas already had a lefty on a major league deal much like Carpenter in Brad Miller — a multi-positional lefty-swinger who has made his career on his bat not his glove.
And Carpenter had been playing for the Triple-A Round Rock Express with Josh Smith, a key piece the Yankees had sent to Texas last July for Joey Gallo. And Smith was (yep) a multi-position lefty-swinger closing in on a call-up (that came May 30).
Carpenter had agreed to a Triple-A contract to play with the Rangers because Round Rock was closest to his Fort Worth home. Still, it was two-plus hours away. That combined with the Garver decision and the other lefty alternatives were too much. Carpenter had let a May 1 opt-out date pass, believing it was too soon to create an ultimatum with a late-starting, shortened spring plus a late start to the season.
But his relationship with the Rangers was such that they would not block him if he wanted out. And on May 19 — with Garver back — Carpenter asked for and received his release. He was unemployed. He was 35. He was coming off of three ever-worsening seasons with the Cardinals when, in total, he hit .203 with 22 homers in 309 games.
Who could have imagined that this was a new beginning, not the end? Who could envision less than four weeks later, Rangers president of baseball operations Jon Daniels would admit via text: “We probably underestimated Matt’s bat short term. He’s shown in New York that he is able to hit major league pitching.”
Carpenter, who had seven homers in 418 plate appearances between 2020-21, has six in 34 plate appearances for the Yankees after going 0-for-4 Tuesday night in the Yankees’ 2-0 series-opening victory against the Rays. Helpless in 48 limited plate appearances versus lefties the last two seasons for the Cardinals (.128 batting average, no homers), Carpenter was 3-for-10 with a double, two homers and two walks for the Yanks.
In 2013, coming off of two seasons in which he hit .222 with an 86 OPS-plus for the Angels, Vernon Wells had a brilliant first six weeks for the Yankees at age 34: .301, 10 homers and an .895 OPS in 38 games. In the next 92, he hit .199 with one homer and a .495 OPS and Wells’ career was over.
So maybe Carpenter is just Wells (both were three-time All-Stars) and enjoying a peak spurt before the curtain drops. But Aaron Boone is being tempted to find out. He installed him as the DH against Tampa Bay and said, “He’s certainly pushing himself into that mix and earning more and more reps.”
The players whose playing time would have to be impacted for Carpenter to start more often — Josh Donaldson, DJ LeMahieu, Anthony Rizzo and/or Gleyber Torres — are all having fine seasons. Giancarlo Stanton can be put in the outfield (as he was Tuesday) more regularly with Carpenter DHing, but that weakens defense while increasing injury potential for Stanton.
But the Carpenter appetizer is such — power plus terrific at-bats — to motivate a reckoning for the Yanks to learn if they have added an impact bat any club could have had for the prorated minimum a few weeks back as long as it came with a major league job.
When Carpenter was released, his agent, Bryan Cahill, began emailing teams that had expressed offseason interest. The Yankees didn’t wait. Brian Cashman called Carpenter “a white whale,” a player they had been pursuing for years unsuccessfully because they could not get the Cardinals to pay down enough on his multiyear contract.
“We had interest in him in the offseason [on a minor league deal] before he signed with the Rangers,” said Mike Fishman, the Yankees’ vice president/assistant GM. “In addition to his on-base skills, he was a particularly good fit for Yankee Stadium as a left-handed fly-ball pull hitter. We were aware of all the work Carpenter put into this offseason [to remake his swing] and the steps he took to make himself better, and we were seeing the results of his work in Triple-A, particularly in May [.324 average/.1.265 OPS/four homers in 43 plate appearances]. So as soon as we heard he was released, I reached out to express interest.”
The Yankees, though, didn’t have a major league roster spot. Neither really did any team. A few hinted that when the rules changed May 29 and all teams had to drop to 13 pitchers that a positional slot could open. On May 26 that rule was pushed back to June 19. But the Yanks had signed Carpenter by then after Stanton joined Donaldson on the IL while Joey Gallo was out with COVID.
A door of fortune had opened for both sides. Carpenter bursts into hitting. It is a wonderful short story. Can it be more than that?